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«Journal of Sociolinguistics 4/3, 2000: 323±347 Styling the worker: Gender and the commodi®cation of language in the globalized service economy1 ...»

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One theme of the analysis presented above is the linguistic consequences of globalization. I have suggested that present-day corporate verbal hygiene practices may be analysed as part of a strategic attempt by organizations to maximize their advantages in a hyper-competitive globalized economy which is increasingly dominated by the provision of services. Yet it might well be asked whether current practices have precedents in the pre-globalization era. I certainly would not wish to argue that until the late 1980s (the moment of ®nancial deregulation which is generally taken to have inaugurated the shift to today's global economy) workers spoke exactly as they liked, without norms or constraints. Clearly, for as long as `work' has been a distinct domain of social practice, people have developed ways of acting and speaking peculiar to that domain, undergoing within particular workplaces processes of linguistic and other acculturation. It is also evident that what I have described here can be related to much older practices such as the scripting of sales encounters (Leidner 1993) and ± an example with particular relevance to the call centre case ± the regulation of telephone operators' speech in the period before direct dialling.11 However, I would argue that there has been signi®cant intensi®cation, both of the desire of organizations to control employees' language-use and of their ability to do it with some degree of e€ectiveness (in the case of call centres, by using hi-tech surveillance). Linguistic regulation is part of the general trend that George Ritzer (1996) has dubbed `McDonaldization', and about which he has observed that its goal is to pre-empt any choice of means to ends by the people actually engaged in a given activity. Instead, decisions on what to do, how and when are reserved to people at the top of the organizational hierarchy. That, of course, is the very opposite of what is usually claimed about the new global economy, which is frequently said to require highly skilled, self-motivating decision-makers and problem-solvers. Research like that reported here might suggest, however, that accounts such as Ritzer's, and Gee, Hull and Lankshear's description of `in-person servers' (quoted above) are closer to the reality of much contemporary service work.

Another ®eld of scholarship to which the analysis of service styling is relevant # Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2000 342 CAMERON is the study of institutional, and more particularly workplace, talk. The spread of `McDonaldizing' practices in what might seem the rather unlikely domain of language-use arguably poses a challenge to what is perhaps the best-established approach to the study of talk at work, that of conversation analysis (e.g. Boden 1994; Drew and Heritage 1992). Ian Hutchby summarises the orthodox conversation analyst's position: `Institutions do not de®ne the kind of talk produced within them: rather participants' ways of designing their talk actually constructs the ``institutionality'' of such settings' (Hutchby 1999: 41). `Interaction', say Drew and Heritage, `is institutional insofar as participants' institutional or professional identities are somehow made relevant to the work activities in which they are engaged' (1992: 4). But while anything that goes on in talk has in the ®nal analysis to be accomplished by the participants, in my view these formulations fail to capture the extent to which institutions like the ones discussed in this article (or more exactly, agents with authority in those institutions) do increasingly de®ne the kind of talk produced in institutional contexts. Practices of scripting, styling and surveillance cannot entirely override the necessity for interaction to be locally managed, but they can and do place constraints on the freedom of participants to `design their talk' or to choose how they will make their institutional identities `relevant'. True, the practices discussed above were still marginal in the early 1990s when Drew and Heritage were writing, and they still have little purchase on the high-status professionals (e.g. doctors) whose interactions have always featured heavily in the literature on institutional talk. They are nevertheless increasingly common realities, which the study of talk at work must have something to say about in future.

Finally, the verbal hygiene practices which are the subject of this article are of interest for what they tell us about the relationship between language and gender. I have argued that the regulation and commodi®cation of language in service workplaces has resulted in the valorization of a speech style whose characteristics include expressiveness, caring, empathy and sincerity ± characteristics popularly associated with the speech of women (if anyone doubts this, let them consult any example of the `Mars and Venus' genre originated by Gray 1992, whose tenets have subsequently pervaded popular culture (cf.

Cameron 1999; Talbot 2000) ). However, I hope it will be obvious that I do not regard the value attached to `women's language' in service work as a cause for feminist celebration. Whether it bene®ts women in any way whatever is open to question; the advantage they currently enjoy over men in terms of numbers employed in the service sector may arise in part from discrimination in their favour, but it also re¯ects the continuing disdain of many men for service work.

Though commentators have been warning for a decade that this contempt is a luxury men cannot a€ord ± globalization is destroying alternative sources of employment for low-skilled workers ± resistance is still pronounced among school-age boys, especially those from the white working class (Mahony 1998).

In time, it is possible that men will serve in equal numbers alongside women.

If that happens, it raises the intriguing question whether the linguistic style I # Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2000 STYLING THE WORKER 343 have described will become `de-gendered', associated in the popular imagination less with the supposed dispositions of a particular social group (women), and more with a social domain in which individuals play a particular social role (customer service). I do not of course suggest that the de-gendering of a particular style would put an end to the linguistic construction of gender in any form. For as long as gender remains a salient social category, linguistic behaviour will doubtless continue to be one site for its production and reproduction. But the meaning of `gender' is not ®xed for all time, and there is no reason either to suppose that its linguistic instantiations must remain forever the same.

Globalization is changing, or has the potential to change, many of the social realities that preoccupy social scientists, among them `class', `ethnicity', `nation', `gender', `work' and indeed `language'. These developments are as signi®cant for sociolinguistics as for any other social science discipline, and sociolinguists should be prepared to follow them wherever they may lead.


1. I am indebted to the editors of the Journal of Sociolinguistics and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper, and to audiences at the 1999 ILA and NWAVE conferences who commented on oral presentations of the material. I am grateful also to Sylvie Roy, Steve Taylor, Jack Whalen and Anne Witz for making unpublished work available to me. Last but not least, I thank the call centre operators, supervisors and managers (their names withheld at their own request) who provided me with the information and many of the insights on which this article is based.

2. This article deals only with call centres whose working language is (British) English.

In the context of globalization, however, it is worth asking how far the same regulatory practices and interactional norms are being di€used across language communities. On this point, some suggestive observations are made by Sylvie Roy (1999), who ®nds evidence in a bilingual centre in Ontario of the same concern to regulate and standardize French usage, and the codi®cation of French formulas  which parallel established English ones (e.g. `merci d'avoir appele [la compagnie].

Á C'est [votre nom] a l'appareil. Comment puis-je vous aider?').

3. The issue of accent in service work is complicated and would bear further scrutiny.

The perception of various local accents is often mentioned as a factor companies consider when choosing locations for call centres. For instance, the publicity materials produced by Scottish local authorities as part of their e€orts to attract call centres to the region trade heavily on the positive connotations of a Scottish accent, such as friendliness, sincerity and reliability (see e.g. Louden 1999).

However, I do not think this rhetoric can be taken at face value: the reasons why many call centres are concentrated in central Scotland have more to do with the availability and cost of labour, the supply of reasonably priced commercial property, the local telecommunications infrastructure, etc. Also, one might suspect (though I was unable to gather ®rm evidence on this point) that some Scottish speakers are # Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2000 344 CAMERON judged too `broad' to be acceptable and are weeded out during the selection process for that reason. Since call centre work, like other occupations, tends to draw recruits with a certain kind of class and educational background, the most nonstandard speakers are likely to be excluded a priori.

4. One reason why I o€er no observations on how far the actual performance of service routines matches the norms laid down for that performance is that the call centres to which I gained access would not permit me to use audio-recordings of routine transactions. This might seem curious given that many call centres record such transactions themselves for purposes of training and appraisal. In Britain, however, recording of calls is subject to conditions laid down by the telecommunications regulator Oftel, and in some cases also to agreements with trades unions about the use of recorded data. My own and others' observations (e.g. Tyler and Taylor 1997) suggest that compliance with style rules is variable, but workers are likely to display a higher degree of compliance when they assume they are being monitored ± this being in most cases the default or `safe' assumption.

5. Not all centres call this `counselling': alternative labels include `audit' and `appraisal'. There are also variations in precisely what is involved (e.g. how formal the assessment is, how often it takes place): the details depend on the particular culture of the centre concerned, but six of the seven centres in my sample had some variant of the practice.

6. Other researchers have solved some of the problems I encountered either by developing a relationship with one particular centre over time (cf. Roy 1999;

Tyler and Taylor 1997) or by acting as paid consultants to the management (cf.

Whalen and Vinkhuysen in press). These alternatives have both advantages and disadvantages (a point discussed in more detail in the appendix to Cameron 2000).

7. As far as I can tell, there is no evidence supporting the assertion that customers want the routine to be `consistent every time they call', at least if `consistency' is taken to imply no variation at all in the words used by di€erent operators on di€erent occasions. Conversely, surveys have found customers dislike dealing with someone who is obviously reading from a script ± though it is unclear whether their dissatisfaction is with scripting itself or just with inept delivery.

8. The Cathay Paci®c action was reported in The Scotsman (7 January 1999). The report quoted a company spokesman who described attendants' smiles as `sincere', `genuine' and an expression of the `warmth and superior service' for which Asian carriers are renowned. The racial stereotyping here is overt, but covertly there is also gender stereotyping. `Superior service' in the past and present advertising of several Asian airlines (e.g. Singapore as well as Cathay Paci®c) is invariably personi®ed by a smiling Asian woman. A smiling Asian man would be a much less `natural' and more problematic image with which to convey the desired meaning.

9. An anonymous reviewer commented that the reference to `inauthenticity' in this sentence raises important issues. Limitations of space mean it is not possible to pursue them here, but they are discussed at length in Cameron 2000.

10. This story does not necessarily indicate a greater sensitivity about gender/sexual identity among American male workers than among their British counterparts.

Rather it probably re¯ects the greater willingness of American businesses to prescribe this sort of behaviour. While British service cultures are changing (and arguably they are changing in the direction of `Americanization'), routines like the one described in the anecdote would still be considered `over the top' in the British context. In my U.K.-based research I came across several attempts to introduce American service customs, which had foundered on the rock of British customers' # Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2000 STYLING THE WORKER 345 ba‚ement, contempt or ridicule. (One example: the stationing at the entrance to a Scottish supermarket of a `greeter' who exhorted customers to `enjoy your shopping experience' while handing them a basket. Both sta€ and customers reportedly found this innovation embarrassing and ludicrous.)

11. That telephone operators were subject to quite intensive vocal and linguistic styling is apparent from a feature on U.S. National Public Radio's news/magazine programme All Things Considered (®rst broadcast 16 April 1999) using material from the archives of the phone company AT & T.

REFERENCES Bell, Allan. 1984. Language style as audience design. Language in Society 13: 145±204.

Bell, Allan. 1997. Style as audience design. In Nikolas Coupland and Adam Jaworski (eds.) Sociolinguistics: A Reader and Coursebook. London: Macmillan. 240±249.

Boden, Deirdre. 1994. The Business of Talk: Organizations in Action. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bucholtz, Mary. 1999. You da man: Narrating the racial other in the production of white masculinity. Journal of Sociolinguistics 3: 443±460.

Cameron, Deborah. 1995. Verbal Hygiene. London: Routledge.

Cameron, Deborah. 1999. Better conversations: A morality play in twelve tapes.

Feminism and Psychology 9: 315±333.

Cameron, Deborah. 2000. Good To Talk? Living and Working in a Communication Culture.

London: Sage Publications.

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